As the American church continues to struggle with the issue of racial diversity, one popular catch-phrase suggests that the church should somehow become “color blind” — ignore our differences and treat everyone in the same manner. While I most certainly affirm our need to love every person with His love, “color blindness” is not the antidote for the latent (and blatant) racism that clings to culture. Let me explain…
When Peter was led of God to carry the gospel across the barrier between Jew and Gentile, he explained how his heart was changed: “But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (Acts 10:28) When Peter said “I should not call” he meant don’t say it, don’t think it, don’t joke about it, and don’t ignore it. Why? Because to declare “any man common or unclean” is simply not true. No man is “common” (i.e., profane, worthless) or beyond God’s desire to love him. Similarly, no man is “unclean” or beyond God’s power to purify him.
Let me offer four reasons why we should explore (and not ignore) our differences:
- our God-given differences are beautiful – we need to remember Who made us different! What makes us different from one another is bound up in the creative intention of our Father, and consequently something to recognize, affirm, and value!
- our God-given differences are missional – “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Mt 28:19) Our differences are “borders” to be crossed with the gospel, not obstacles we should fear or avoid.
- our God-given differences are essential – “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased.” (1 Cor. 12:17-18) Diversity in the church reflects the purpose and provision of God – just another of His wonderful ways of supplying everything the church needs to accomplish everything He has called them to do.
- our God-given differences are eternal – “And they sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.‘” (Rev. 5:9) Notice that eternity is not “color blind.” Our God-given differences do not disappear and dissolve into some new kind of angelic uniformity. The unique and beautiful way that God made you and me becomes a tapestry of praise in His presence. Believers on earth are already “citizens” and participants in the culture of heaven. He has set us free (together) to become fully and exactly what He created us to be… today!
There’s no need to ignore differences or pretend they do not exist. Those differences are not threats to be feared, but real and God-given expressions of His creative love and wisdom.
“It was the magnet on the refrigerator,” she said. Immediately, I was moved beyond words. I never imagined the magnet would be a divine tool for life change!
In the pre-Katrina and pre-Rita years of the mid-90s, the First Baptist Church of Lake Charles, Louisiana set out to minister to our community with a hurricane preparedness campaign. Armed with a desire to saturate the city and surrounding communities with a basic introduction to Jesus Christ, the staff and members worked together to distribute packets of free materials on the opening weekend of hurricane season.
Located 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Charles is nestled among the bayous and wetlands of southwest Louisiana. Hurricanes are an annual, recurring threat during the summer and early fall months. During the days leading up to the official opening of hurricane season (June 1st), radio and television news anchors and newspapers are “news hungry” for events and information related to hurricane preparedness. The conditions were perfect for planning and launching an outwardly-focused ministry effort around the theme “Weathering the Storms of Life.”
Selecting the weekend after Memorial Day (the Atlantic hurricane season opens on June 1st), teams would give away hurricane preparedness materials on Saturday and invite people to attend services on Sunday aimed at helping them “weather” the personal storms in life.
Tables loaded with packets of free materials were set up at the local mall and area shopping centers. With an educational weather video running to the side, passers-by were greeted by smiling church members handing out the packets. They were also encouraged to sign-up for a door prize displayed on the table: a large ice chest filled with hurricane preparedness items, such as canned goods, bottled water, radios, flashlights, batteries, and first aid kits. It was too tempting not to sign up, which was the idea!
When persons registered for the door prize, they had the option of indicating on the form whether they would like additional information about First Baptist Church. Persons noting interest in the church became prospective guests for follow-up through one of our adult Sunday School classes.
On Sunday a common Bible study lesson was taught throughout the adult and youth divisions based on the ministry theme “Weathering the Storms of Life.” In the worship service, the music and message were gospel-centered and focused on the hearts of guests in the congregation. In addition, a local weather personality or a hurricane survivor was invited to speak for five minutes about the importance of hurricane preparedness.
In the days following the community ministry weekend, door prizes were delivered, thank you notes were written to area store managers and volunteers, and follow-up visits were conducted in the homes of persons requesting additional contact from the church.
Annually in mid-winter, four teams were enlisted to oversee preparations for the distribution venues, publicity efforts, packet creation, and follow-up activities. A staff pastor or volunteer served as the coordinator for the four teams, meeting with each team regularly to monitor progress and encourage the leaders in their work.
The venue team secured the locations and written permissions needed to set up distribution tables in area stores. Venue leaders enlisted volunteers and gathered the resources for each location (e.g., tables, chairs, video players).
The publicity team worked to get the word out. Preparing a news release about the event, the team sent notices to every newspaper, television and radio outlet in the area. The media treated the information either as a community event or public service announcement (PSA). Requests for interviews were common and immediately accepted! The week before the event, church members were given stacks of attractive cards to share with their neighbors and friends, inviting them to the venues and the theme service.
The packet team contacted emergency preparedness officials for literature to insert in the give-away materials. Area businesses were delighted to print and give coupons towards the purchase of recommended preparedness materials. An imprinted refrigerator magnet was created giving the church numbers, as well as the local emergency preparedness phone numbers (today, I would include URLs to their websites). On the Wednesday night prior to the event, members held a “Packet Packing Party” to stuff the hundreds of plastic bags with the materials gathered in previous months. With the addition of refreshments and music, everyone had a blast!
In later years, the packet was abandoned in favor of a “news magazine”. Drawing on business leaders who would pay for small advertisements in the paper, the tabloid contained the same hurricane preparedness information, as well as articles from church staff about ways in which First Baptist Church could help someone weather the “storms” of life. The advantage to this approach was a greater distribution of materials at a much lower cost. In fact, the ads eventually paid for the entire outreach event. It cost the church nothing!
The follow-up team made sure that every door prize registrant and venue volunteer received a note of appreciation from the church and that all door prizes were delivered in person. Working through the existing outreach leaders in the Sunday School, the goal was that 100% of the persons indicating interest in learning more about the church would be contacted within the first week following the event. It was a critical and rewarding task.
Church members gave away approximately 2000 packets each year. Of the 2000 persons taking a packet, about 75% went on to register for the door prize. About 10-15% of the door prize registrants indicated an interest in learning more about the church. The resulting 275-300 prospective guests were genuinely open to contact from the church.
The impact to the church budget was minimal. Once the church began printing their own materials and selling ads, the cost was eliminated altogether.
Church members of all ages became involved in outreach and in working together. New relationships were forged as individuals worked side-by-side packing packets or giving away free materials.
The church became highly visible in the community. Relationships with local broadcasters and news personalities gave the church an open door for communicating future projects. The positive name recognition that developed was invaluable.
But the most important result of all?
Remember the Magnet?
Passing by one of the give-away tables, a young woman picked up one of the packets and went home. Not thinking much about it at the time, she placed the imprinted magnet on her refrigerator.
Months later, she and her husband were struggling with their marriage. Ready to give up, they decided to visit a church and see if God couldn’t make a difference in their home. Recalling the magnet on her refrigerator door, the wife suggested to her husband that they visit First Baptist Church. God changed their hearts and renewed their marriage!
Months later it was one of the great blessings of my ministry to visit one of the venues giving away free packets of hurricane preparedness materials. There they were. The smiling couple with a new “storm-proof” marriage was busy at work and “weathering the storms of life.”
A pastor challenged me recently on whether it was true that new churches tended to engage more unchurched people than did older, established churches. In a study published two months ago, in fact, nearly half of the people attending new churches were non-attenders in the past.
What was the most common pathway into the church? Relationships.
Of course if the gospel and the transformation He brings are not central to what is happening, then nothing else the church does matters. But if the church forgets why they exist, the gospel rarely gets shared. In new churches and Bible study groups, most of the members understand that reaching out and welcoming new people is part of their “job description.”
Research is no substitute for the truth of God’s Word, but it is important for church leaders to discern their circumstances (Prov. 25:2). Here’s the most recent research that supports the value of starting new groups and churches (or helping established churches rethink why they exist)…
Imagine that you are in a room with an Iranian Jew, a Pakistani Muslim, a Nigerian animist, a Tibetan monk, a Chicago-born African-American, and a businessman from Memphis. You are each in this room for your entire life, and you are the only Christian in the room.
Who would you be most responsible to share the gospel with? You’d say, “That’s silly. I’d share the gospel with each of them.”
And if I kept putting people in the room with you, would you give me the same answer? I would hope so. This planet is that room… and we’re all in it together.
Who are we supposed to share the gospel with? Jesus said “all.” I believe He meant it.
The Sending-Organization Imperatives
When Jesus told His followers to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19), He was not referring to the modern concept of a nation, such as France, India, or the Philippines. The Greek word “ethne” referred to any group of people living together, typically along racial and cultural lines.
Since the 1990s, every major missionary-sending body has embraced an unreached people group strategy. In a historic speech at the Lausanne Conference on World Mission (1974), Ralph Winter argued that it simply didn’t make sense to focus on sending missionaries to evangelize a country (i.e., a nation with geographical and political boundaries), because there may be hundreds – or even thousands—of unique people groups within the borders of any given country. Sometimes those people groups lived on both sides of the geopolitical borders and straddled the borders of multiple countries.
What is a people group? That depends on who composes the definition. There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world, but when you include natural associations derived from dialects and ethnicity, human beings can fall into 13,000 different “people groups.” However, if you add other bases for affinity – such as religion, caste, education, politics, ideology, customs, or shared history – you could identify as many as 24,000 groups of people in the world. Consequently, the people group definitions and counts vary widely.
Mission organizations have worked hard at identifying and classifying people groups as reached or unreached. Again, the definitions vary somewhat, but an unreached people group is one where less than 2% of the population is composed of evangelical Christians. Unreached people groups are either engaged or unengaged… engaged groups have been penetrated by someone attempting to implement a church planting strategy as a primary means of spreading the gospel.
Millions of dollars are raised each year and thousands of churches have become involved in the effort to reduce and eliminate the number of unengaged, unreached people groups on the planet. The people group strategy is an essential way of identifying groups with little or no access to the gospel. It offers a way for mission organizations with limited funding to prioritize where dollars and personnel will be deployed. It opens up new ways for individual churches to become directly involved in global missions.
But there is a major problem with an exclusive commitment to a people group strategy.
The Biblical Imperative: ALL
Most mission groups define an unreached people group as one where less than 2% are evangelical Christians. What’s wrong with that?
Jesus commanded us to do much more.
Many mission leaders refer to the effort to carry the gospel to unreached people groups as “finishing the task,” when in truth (if you believe 2% is the goal), you have only just begun the task. In the Bible, God reveals His heart for every person:
- He is the shepherd who doesn’t stop at finding 2% of the sheep, or 99% of the sheep: He does not stop until every last sheep is rescued.
- He is the woman who doesn’t stop until the lost coin is found.
- He is the father who does not rest until the lost son is home.
God dances when one soul is saved! This is the heart of God. He is not satisfied with merely penetrating the world with the gospel, rather, He is focused on saturation. Prior to the advent of contemporary people group emphases, the earliest missionaries in the modern era seemed to understand this. In 1818, missionary pioneers Gordon Hall and Samuel Newell wrote,
“If we send half a dozen Missionaries to a country where there are as many millions of souls, we are too apt to imagine that we have discharged our duty to that country—we have sent them the gospel. The fact however is, we have only sent the gospel to a few individuals in that nation. The great body of the people never hear of our missionaries or the religion they teach. The thing that Christ commands is to preach the gospel to every creature,—not merely to a few individuals in every nation.”
In 1870, William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, wrote a book entitled How to Reach the Masses with the Gospel. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed D. L. Moody’s mission church, his home, and the YMCA. God used it to change him: he devoted the rest of his life to the “evangelization of the world in this generation.” In 1891, A.T. Pierson asked the question as he succeeded Charles Spurgeon as pastor of London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle: “The great question of the hour is, how can the immediate proclamation of the Gospel to every creature be made a fact?”
As late as 1976, the Southern Baptist Convention launched a “Bold Mission Thrust”, setting a goal “that every person in the world shall have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ in the next 25 years.” Unfortunately, our mission is no longer to saturate the world with the gospel, but to merely penetrate selected groups.
The Great Commission is actually a series of statements Jesus made directing the church to continue His ministry on earth. Matthew 28:18-20 is probably the best known and most quoted (more on that in a moment). Other “great commission” statements include:
- Matthew 24:14 “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
- Mark 16:15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”
- Luke 24:46-47 Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
- Acts 1:8 “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Only two of these passages capture a clear command from Jesus that defines our mission.
Disciple All Who Receive Christ
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus begins with a promise that He rules in the unseen and the visible realms (all authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth). He issues a single command to reproduce more followers of Jesus (make disciples of all the nations). He adds three defining activities associated with making a disciple: going, baptizing, and teaching. Then, He closes with a final promise that He is always with us in this assignment (I am with you always, even to the end of the age).
His promises about His authority challenge me and comfort me. The challenge lies in the fact that He is not recommending I make disciples: he commands me (and every other believer) to do it. The comfort I find in His authority is that every place I go and every person I meet is already under His rule… they just don’t know it. Knowing this has helped me battle my own experiences of loneliness, culture shock, isolation, disappointment, discouragement, rejection, and doubt.
The mandate to make disciples includes all nations. I am to help people learn to follow Christ without regard to their race, language, literacy, income, age, or health. I am to help people understand His heart and will for their lives. I am to help them learn how to walk with Him wherever He is moving, staying close through the leading of His indwelling Spirit—listening for His voice, relying on His presence, and drawing on His power.
Evangelize All Who Are Lost
And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”
In Mark 16:15, the essential command is to preach or herald the gospel. In ancient times, official statements from a king were entrusted to an official messenger who would go to public locations and announce the king’s words. Jesus clarifies His intent by adding that this preaching activity was to involve going to every place (all the world) and speaking to every person (every creature).
This is a GREAT commission. Jesus is insisting that every human being needs to hear the good news. From senior adults in North Dakota, to street urchins in Mumbai, to white collar types in New York City, to the gaucho in Patagonia… every person needs to know that God sent Jesus to rescue every individual from the enemies of the human soul. Without Jesus, they have no hope. The gospel answers their deepest needs: to know God, to find forgiveness for sin, to know power for change, and to lose the universal fear of death.
Possessing the gospel is not a privilege to enjoy, or a resource to be rationed out among the nations, but it is a message to be shared!
Every generation of Christians is responsible to share the good news with their generation. A concept flowing out of the nineteenth century, it is rooted in biblical example. Paul preached in Ephesus, until everyone in Asia heard the gospel (Acts 19:10), then he told the church leaders in Acts 20:26, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.”
For an illustration of our current problem, imagine a cord 120 inches long (10 feet). If that length represents a global population of 7.1 billion people, then 8½ inches would represent the 500 million evangelicals alive today. Do you really believe God is satisfied that only 2¼ inches (2%) of the remaining 111½ inches would represent the “fulfillment” of the Great Commission?
That’s not “bold” or anything like “finishing the task” — that’s disobedience!
We are to make Him known to every person in our generation… that’s the heartbeat of the Great Commission.
Yes, we are being forced to leverage limited resources and personnel to unreached people groups… but we must never forget that God is pursuing the unreached person whether he (or she) lives across the street or around the world.
All means every… one.